Standing in the shadow of the nation's Capitol building, history teacher Ronald Gross takes a long look around. Fellow NYSUT activists are demonstrating for workers' rights on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court while justices inside are hearing arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — a case that threatens the future of America's public sector unions.
"I was reflecting on everything that has gone on in this country and, honestly, I find it disappointing that, at this stage, here we [are] fighting for our lives," says Gross, president of the William Floyd United Teachers on Long Island. "This is a pivotal moment in our history."
That is not hyperbole.
Despite decades of settled law that upholds the right of unions to require the payment of dues by workers represented in collective bargaining, plaintiffs in Friedrichs are seeking a court ruling that would allow such workers to become "free riders." It would mean they would not have to pay any dues despite the fact their salary, health coverage and retirement protections are secured through union representation.
Such a decision could decimate public union solidarity and finances.
"Our members have to stay vigilant, they have to stay involved and they have to stay on top of the issues. They have to support their union," says NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, who, along with Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner, helped lead last month's demonstration outside the court along with members from NYSUT's national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.
"These are tough times for our members," Pallotta says. "The union has been there for them, and now they need to be there for their union."
That's exactly why Patricia Bentley, a United University Professions member and retired college librarian, made the trip to Washington, D.C., from Plattsburgh.
"It's because of unions that we have good working conditions, compensation and due process that protects teachers, which allows them to become better educators," Bentley says. "So, ultimately, this is really about the students, too." Allowing free riders to "coast on the coattails" of those who not only pay dues, but do all the work calling attention to poor working conditions and unfair labor practices, is not only wrong, it's "anti-democratic," she says.
While pro-labor activists rally outside in the chilly January air, Jessie Leiken of NYSUT's Suffolk Regional Office on Long Island, listens inside the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices grill attorneys on each side. Leiken is taken with how "inherently political" the court seems, and though she feels "optimistic about the outcome of the case" that morning, she acknowledges feeling "discouraged" by the time she leaves 90 minutes later.
Indeed, much has been made about the politics that surround and seemingly influence today's Supreme Court. Yet, as history has shown — particularly in the unsuccessful attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act — it is difficult to infer the outcome of a case based solely on arguments made and questions asked by the justices.
While courts have ruled that unions can charge dues to cover the costs associated with collective bargaining, laws also prohibit unions from forcing workers to contribute toward political action activities. But plaintiffs in Friedrichs contend that collective bargaining is a form of political activity and that by having to pay dues, their First Amendment rights are being violated.
"What really bothers me is [the plaintiffs] are basing their argument on the U.S. Constitution," says Gross. "Well, the Constitution opens with: ‘We, the people, of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.' Unions are a model of our country."
As unions across the country await the Friedrichs decision — expected in June — NYSUT continues to ensure the professions and rights of its members are protected and that their voices are heard. "At the end of the day, this is not something we can necessarily control. This is something we have to prepare for," says Messner. "We have to expect the worst. So moving forward; it's going to require a lot of work and a lot of commitment on both the part of NYSUT and local leaders. We need to transform the way we do business."
Leiken, who spent four years as an AFT organizer before coming to NYSUT where she serves as a labor relations specialist intern, believes the union is ready and has "a very strong plan moving forward."
"I am completely optimistic about NYSUT's capacity and ability to respond," Leiken says. "We have a very good plan, one that reflects the different regions of the state, that's tailored to help our locals meet the challenges and obstacles they face."
Friedrichs, Leiken says, has the potential to "invigorate" the nation's labor movement by triggering a more widespread engagement as unionists prepare for the ruling.
Should the court in Friedrichs return an unfavorable decision, Leiken says, "we are in a very, very strong position to survive it … if we focus on organizing."